My Lady Caprice
I. TREASURE TROVE II. THE SHERIFF OF NOTTINGHAM III. THE DESPERADOES IV. MOON MAGIC V. THE EPISODE OF THE INDIAN'S AUNT VI. THE OUTLAW VII. THE BLASTED OAK VIII. THE LAND OF HEART'S DELIGHT
I sat fishing. I had not caught anything, of course—I rarely do, nor am I fond of fishing in the very smallest degree, but I fished assiduously all the same, because circumstances demanded it.
It had all come about through Lady Warburton, Lisbeth's maternal aunt. Who Lisbeth is you will learn if you trouble to read these veracious narratives—suffice it for the present that she has been an orphan from her youth up, with no living relative save her married sister Julia and her Aunt (with a capital A)—the Lady Warburton aforesaid.
Lady Warburton is small and somewhat bony, with a sharp chin and a sharper nose, and invariably uses lorgnette; also, she is possessed of much worldly goods.
Precisely a week ago Lady Warburton had requested me to call upon her—had regarded me with a curious exactitude through her lorgnette, and gently though firmly (Lady Warburton is always firm) had suggested that Elizabeth, though a dear child, was young and inclined to be a little self-willed. That she (Lady Warburton) was of opinion that Elizabeth had mistaken the friendship which had existed between us so long for something stronger. That although she (Lady Warburton) quite appreciated the fact that one who wrote books, and occasionally a play, was not necessarily immoral— Still I was, of course, a terrible Bohemian, and the air of Bohemia was not calculated to conduce to that degree of matrimonial harmony which she (Lady Warburton) as Elizabeth's Aunt, standing to her in place of a mother, could wish for. That, therefore, under these circumstances my attentions were—etc., etc.
Here I would say in justice to myself that despite the torrent of her eloquence I had at first made some attempt at resistance; but who could hope to contend successfully against a woman possessed of such an indomitable nose and chin, and one, moreover, who could level a pair of lorgnette with such deadly precision? Still, had Lisbeth been beside me things might have been different even then; but she had gone away into the country—so Lady Warburton had informed me. Thus alone and at her mercy, she had succeeded in wringing from me a half promise that I would cease my attentions for the space of six months, "just to give dear Elizabeth time to learn her own heart in regard to the matter."
This was last Monday. On the Wednesday following, as I wandered aimlessly along Piccadilly, at odds with Fortune and myself, but especially with myself, my eye encountered the Duchess of Chelsea.
The Duchess is familiarly known as the "Conversational Brook" from the fact that when once she begins she goes on forever. Hence, being in my then frame of mind, it was with a feeling of rebellion that I obeyed the summons of her parasol and crossed over to the brougham.
"So she's gone away?" was her greeting as I raised my hat—"Lisbeth," she nodded, "I happened to hear something about her, you know."
It is strange, perhaps, but the Duchess generally does "happen to hear" something about everything. "And you actually allowed yourself to be bullied into making that promise—Dick! Dick! I'm ashamed of you."
"How was I to help myself?" I began. "You see—"
"Poor boy!" said the Duchess, patting me affectionately with the handle of her parasol, "it wasn't to be expected, of course. You see, I know her—many, many years ago I was at school with Agatha Warburton."
"But she probably didn't use lorgnettes then, and—"
"Her nose was just as sharp though—'peaky' I used to call it," nodded the Duchess. "And she has actually sent Lisbeth away—dear child—and to such a horrid, quiet little place, too, where she'll have nobody to talk to but that young Selwyn.
"I beg pardon, Duchess, but—"
"Horace Selwyn, of Selwyn Park—cousin to Lord Selwyn, of Brankesmere. Agatha has been scheming for it a long time, under the rose, you know. Of course, it would be a good match, in a way—wealthy, and all that—but I must say he bores me horribly—so very serious and precise!"
"Really!" I exclaimed, "do you mean to say—"
"I expect she will have them married before they know it—Agatha's dreadfully determined. Her character lies in her nose and chin."
"But Lisbeth is not a child—she has a will of her own, and—"
"True," nodded the Duchess, "but is it a match for Agatha's chin? And then, too, it is rather more than possible that you are become the object of her bitterest scorn by now.
"But, my dear Duchess—"
"Oh, Agatha is a born diplomat. Of course she has written before this, and without actually saying it has managed to convey the fact that you are a monster of perfidy; and Lisbeth, poor child, is probably crying her eyes out, or imagining she hates you, is ready to accept the first proposal she receives out of pure pique."
"Great heavens!" I exclaimed, "what on earth can I do?"
"You might go fishing," the Duchess suggested thoughtfully.
"Fishing!" I repeated, "—er, to be sure, but—"
"Riverdale is a very pretty place they tell me," pursued the Duchess in the same thoughtful tone; "there is a house there, a fine old place called Fane Court. It stands facing the river, and adjoins Selwyn Park, I believe."
"Duchess," I exclaimed, as I jotted down the address upon my cuff, "I owe you a debt of gratitude that I can never—"
"Tut, tut!" said her Grace.
"I think I'll start to-day, and—"
"You really couldn't do better," nodded the duchess.
* * * * *
And so it befell that on this August afternoon I sat in the shade of the alders fishing, with the smoke of my pipe floating up into the sunshine.
By adroit questioning I had elicited from mine host of the Three Jolly Anglers the precise whereabouts of Fane Court, the abode of Lisbeth's sister, and guided by his directions, had chosen this sequestered spot, where by simply turning my head I could catch a glimpse of its tall chimneys above the swaying green of the treetops.
It is a fair thing upon a summer's hot afternoon within some shady bower to lie upon one's back and stare up through a network of branches into the limitless blue beyond, while the air is full of the stir of leaves, and the murmur of water among the reeds. Or propped on lazy elbow, to watch perspiring wretches, short of breath and purple of visage, urge boats upstream or down, each deluding himself into the belief that he is enjoying it. Life under such conditions may seem very fair, as I say; yet I was not happy. The words of the Duchess seemed everywhere about me.
"You are become the object of her bitterest scorn by now," sobbed the wind.
"You are become," etc., etc., moaned the river. It was therefore with no little trepidation that I looked forward to my meeting with Lisbeth.
It was this moment that the bushes parted and a boy appeared. He was a somewhat diminutive boy, clad in a velvet suit with a lace collar, both of which were plentifully bespattered with mud. He carried his shoes and stockings beneath one arm, and in the other hand swung a hazel branch. He stood with his little brown legs well apart, regarding me with a critical eye; but when at length he spoke his attitude was decidedly friendly.
"Hallo," I returned; "and whom may you be?"
"Well, my real name is Reginald Augustus, but they call me 'The Imp.'"
"I can well believe it," I said, eyeing his muddy person.
"If you please, what is an imp?"
"An imp is a sort of an—angel."
"But," he demurred, after a moment's thought, "I haven't got wings an' things—or a trumpet."
"Your kind never do have wings and trumpets."
"Oh, I see," he said; and sitting down began to wipe the mud from his legs with his stockings.
"Rather muddy, aren't you?" I hinted. The boy cast a furtive glance at his draggled person.
"'Fraid I'm a teeny bit wet, too," he said hesitatingly. "You see, I've been playing at 'Romans' an' I had to wade, you know, because I was the standard bearer who jumped into the sea waving his sword an' crying, 'Follow me!' You remember him, don't you?—he's in the history book."
"To be sure," I nodded; "a truly heroic character. But if you were the Romans, where were the ancient Britons?"
"Oh, they were the reeds, you know; you ought to have seen me slay them. It was fine; they went down like—like—"
"Corn before a sickle," I suggested.
"Yes, just!" he cried; "the battle raged for hours."
"You must be rather tired."
"'Course not," he answered, with an indignant look. "I'm not a girl—and I'm nearly nine, too."
"I gather from your tone that you are not partial to the sex—you don't like girls, eh, Imp?"
"Should think not," he returned; "silly things, girls are. There's Dorothy, you know; we were playing at executions the other day—she was Mary Queen of Scots an' I was the headsman. I made a lovely axe with wood and silver paper, you know; and when I cut her head off she cried awfully, and I only gave her the weeniest little tap—an' they sent me to bed at six o'clock for it. I believe she cried on purpose—awfully caddish, wasn't it?"
"My dear Imp," said I, "the older you grow, the more the depravity of the sex will become apparent to you."
"Do you know, I like you," he said, regarding me thoughtfully, "I think you are fine."
"Now that's very nice of you, Imp; in common with my kind I have a weakness for flattery-please go on."
"I mean, I think you are jolly."
"As to that," I said, shaking my head and sighing, "appearances are often very deceptive; at the heart of many a fair blossom there is a canker worm."
"I'm awfull' fond of worms, too," said the Imp.
"Yes. I got a pocketful yesterday, only Aunty found out an' made me let them all go again."
"Ah-yes," I said sympathetically; "that was the woman of it."
"I've only got one left now," continued the Imp; and thrusting a hand into the pocket of his knickerbockers he drew forth six inches or so of slimy worm and held it out to me upon his small, grimy palm.
"He's nice and fat!" I said.
"Yes," nodded the Imp; "I caught him under the gooseberry bushes;" and dropping it back into his pocket he proceeded to don his shoes and stockings.
"Fraid I'm a bit muddy," he said suddenly.
"Oh, you might be worse," I answered reassuringly.
"Do you think they'll notice it?" he inquired, contorting himself horribly in order to view the small of his back.
"Well," I hesitated, "it all depends, you know."
"I don't mind Dorothy, or Betty the cook, or the governess—it's Auntie Lisbeth I'm thinking about."
"Auntie—who?" I exclaimed, regardless of grammar.
"Auntie Lisbeth," repeated the Imp.
"What is she like?"
"Oh, she's grown up big, only she's nice. She came to take care of Dorothy an' me while mother goes away to get nice an strong—oh Auntie Lisbeth's jolly, you know."
"With black hair and blue eyes?"
The Imp nodded.
"And a dimple at the corner of her mouth?" I went on dreamily—"a dimple that would lead a man to the—Old Gentleman himself."
"What old gentleman?"
"Oh, a rather disreputable old gentleman," I answered evasively.
"An' do you know my Auntie Lisbeth?"
"I think it extremely probable—in fact, I'm sure of it."
"Then you might end me your handkerchief, please; I tied mine to a bush for a flag, you know, an' it blew away."
"You'd better come here and I'll give you a rub-down my Imp." He obeyed, with many profuse expressions of gratitude.
"Have you got any Aunties?" he inquired, as I laboured upon his miry person.
"No," I answered, shaking my head; "unfortunately mine are all Aunts and that is vastly different."
"Oh," said the Imp, regarding me with a puzzled expression; "are they nice—I mean do they ever read to out of the history book, and help you to sail boats, an' paddle?"
"Paddle?" I repeated
"Yes. My Auntie Lisbeth does. The other day we got up awfull' early an' went for a walk an' we came to the river, so we took off our shoes an' stockings an' we paddled; it was ever so jolly, you know. An' when Auntie wasn't looking I found a frog an' put it in her stocking."
"Highly strategic, my Imp! Well?"
"It was awful funny," he said, smiling dreamily. "When she went to put it on she gave a little high-up scream like Dorothy does when I pinch her a bit—an' then she throwed them both away, 'cause she was afraid there was frogs in both of them. Then she put on her shoes without any stockings at all, so I hid them."
"Where?" I cried eagerly.
"Reggie!" called a voice some distance away—a voice I recognised with a thrill. "Reggie!"
"Imp, would you like half a crown?"
"'Course I would; but you might clean my back, please," and he began rubbing himself feverishly with his cap, after the fashion of a scrubbing brush.
"Look here," I said, pulling out the coin, "tell me where you hid them—quick—and I'll give you this." The Imp held out his hand, but even as he did so the bushes parted and Lisbeth stood before us. She gave a little, low cry of surprise at sight of me, and then frowned.
"You?" she exclaimed.
"Yes," I answered, raising my cap. And there I stopped, trying frantically to remember the speech I had so carefully prepared—the greeting which was to have explained my conduct and disarmed her resentment at the very outset. But rack my brain as I would, I could think of nothing but the reproach in her eyes—her disdainful mouth and chin—and that one haunting phrase:
"'I suppose I am become the object of your bitterest scorn by now?'" I found myself saying.
"My aunt informed me of—of everything, and naturally—"
"Let me explain," I began.
"Really, it is not at all necessary."
"But, Lisbeth, I must—I insist—"
"Reginald," she said, turning toward the Imp, who was still busy with his cap, "it's nearly tea-time, and—why, whatever have you been doing to yourself?"
"For the last half hour," I interposed, "we have been exchanging our opinions on the sex."
"An' talking 'bout worms," added the Imp. "This man is fond of worms, too, Auntie Lisbeth—I like him."
"Thanks," I said; "but let me beg of you to drop your very distant mode of address, Call me Uncle Dick."
"But you're not my Uncle Dick, you know," he demurred.
"Not yet, perhaps; but there's no knowing what may happen some day if your Auntie thinks us worthy—so take time by the forelock, my Imp, and call me Uncle Dick."
Whatever Lisbeth might or might not have said was checked by the patter of footsteps, and a little girl tripped into view, with a small, fluffy kitten cuddled in her arms.
"Oh, Auntie Lisbeth," she began, but stopped to stare at me over the back of the fluffy kitten.
"Hallo, Dorothy!" cried the imp; "this is Uncle Dick. You can come an' shake hands with him if you like."
"I didn't know I had an Uncle Dick," said Dorothy, hesitating.
"Oh, yes; it's all right," answered the Imp reassuringly. "I found him, you know, an' he likes worms, too!"
"How do you do, Uncle Dick?" she said in a quaint, old-fashioned way. "Reginald is always finding things, you know, an' he likes worms, too!" Dorothy gave me her hand demurely.
From somewhere near by there came the silvery chime of a bell.
"Why, there's the tea-bell!" exclaimed Lisbeth; "and, Reginald, you have to change those muddy clothes. Say good-bye to Mr. Brent, children, and come along."
"Imp," I whispered as the others turned away, "where did you hide those stockings?" And I slipped the half crown into his ready palm.
"Along the river there's a tree—very big an' awfull' fat, you know, with a lot of stickie-out branches, an' a hole in its stomach—they're in there."
"Reginald!" called Lisbeth.
"Up stream or down?"
"That way," he answered, pointing vaguely down stream; and with a nod that brought the yellow curls over his eyes he scampered off.
"Along the river," I repeated, "in a big, fat tree with a lot of stickie-out branches!" It sounded a trifle indefinite, I thought—still I could but try. So having packed up my rod I set out upon the search.
It was strange, perhaps, but nearly every tree I saw seemed to be either "big" or "fat"—and all of them had "stickie-out" branches.
Thus the sun was already low in the west, and I was lighting my fifth pipe when I at length observed the tree in question.
A great pollard oak it was, standing upon the very edge of the stream, easily distinguishable by its unusual size and the fact that at some time or another it had been riven by lightning. After all, the Imp's description had been in the main correct; it was "fat," immensely fat: and I hurried joyfully forward.
I was still some way off when I saw the distant flutter of a white skirt, and—yes, sure enough, there was Lisbeth, walking quickly too, and she was a great deal nearer the tree than I.
Prompted by a sudden conviction, I dropped my rod and began to run. Immediately Lisbeth began running, too. I threw away my creel and sprinted for all I was worth. I had earned some small fame at this sort of thing in my university days, yet I arrived at the tree with only a very few yards to spare. Throwing myself upon my knees, I commenced a feverish search, and presently—more by good fortune than any thing else—my random fingers encountered a soft, silken bundle. When Lisbeth came up, flushed and panting, I held them in my hands.
"Give them to me!" she cried.
"Please," she begged.
"I'm very sorry—"
"Mr. Brent." said Lisbeth, drawing her self up, "I'll trouble you for my—them."
"Pardon me, Lisbeth," I answered, "but if I remember anything of the law of 'treasure-trove' one of these should go to the Crown, and one belongs to me."
Lisbeth grew quite angry—one of her few bad traits.
"You will give them up at once—immediately?
"On the contrary," I said very gently, "seeing the Crown can have no use for one, I shall keep them both to dream over when the nights are long and lonely."
Lisbeth actually stamped her foot at me, and I tucked "them" into my pocket.
"How did you know they—they were here?" she inquired after a pause.
"I was directed to a tree with 'stickie-out' branches," I answered.
"Oh, that Imp!" she exclaimed, and stamped her foot again.
"Do you know, I've grown quite attached to that nephew of mine already?" I said.
"He's not a nephew of yours," cried Lisbeth quite hotly.
"Not legally, perhaps; that is where you might be of such assistance to us Lisbeth. A boy with only an aunt here and there is unbalanced, so to speak; he requires the stronger influence of an uncle. Not," I continued hastily, "that I would depreciate aunts—by the way, he has but one, I believe?" Lisbeth nodded coldly.
"Of course," I nodded; "and very lucky in that one—extremely fortunate. Now, years ago, when I was a boy, I had three, and all of them blanks, so to speak. I mean none of them ever read to me out of the history book, or helped me to sail boats, or paddled and lost their—No, mine used to lecture me about my hair and nails, I remember, and glare at me over the big tea urn until I choked into my teacup. A truly desolate childhood mine. I had no big-fisted uncle to thump me persuasively when I needed it; had fortune granted me one I might have been a very different man, Lisbeth. You behold in me a horrible example of what one may become whose boyhood has been denuded of uncles."
"If you will be so very obliging as to return my—my property."
"My dear Lisbeth," I sighed, "be reasonable; suppose we talk of something else;" and I attempted, though quite vainly, to direct her attention to the glories of the sunset.
A fallen tree lay near by, upon which Lisbeth seated herself with a certain determined set of her little, round chin that I knew well.
"And how long do you intend keeping me here?" she asked in a resigned tone.
"Always, if I had my way."
"Really?" she said, and whole volumes could never describe all the scorn she managed to put into that single word. "You see," she continued, "after what Aunt Agatha wrote and told me—"
"Lisbeth," I broke in, "if you'll only—"
"I naturally supposed—"
"If you'll only let me explain—"
"That you would abide by the promise you made her and wait—"
"Until you knew your own heart," I put in. "The question is, how long will it take you? Probably, if you would allow me to teach you—"
"Your presence here now stamps you as—as horribly deceitful!"
"Undoubtedly," I nodded; "but you see when I was foolish enough to give that promise your very excellent Aunt made no reference to her intentions regarding a certain Mr. Selwyn."
"Oh!" exclaimed Lisbeth. And feeling that I had made a point, I continued with redoubled ardour:
"She gave me to understand that she merely wished you to have time to know your own heart in the matter. Now, as I said before, how long will it take you to find out, Lisbeth?"
She sat chin in hand staring straight before her, and her black brows were still drawn together in a frown. But I watched her mouth—just where the scarlet underlip curved up to meet its fellow.
Lisbeth's mouth is a trifle wide, perhaps, and rather full-lipped, and somewhere at one corner—I can never be quite certain of its exact location, because its appearance is, as a rule, so very meteoric—but somewhere there is a dimple. Now, if ever there was an arrant traitor in this world it is that dimple; for let her expression be ever so guileless, let her wistful eyes be raised with a look of tears in their blue depths, despite herself that dimple will spring into life and undo it all in a moment. So it was now, even as I watched it quivered round her lips, and feeling herself betrayed, the frown vanished altogether and she smiled. "And now, Dick, suppose you give me my—my—"
"Conditionally," I said, sitting down beside her.
The sun had set, and from somewhere among the purple shadows of the wood the rich, deep notes of a blackbird came to us, with pauses now and then, filled in with the rustle of leaves and the distant lowing of cows.
"Not far from the village of Down in Kent," I began dreamily, "there stands an old house with quaint, high-gabled roofs and twisted Tudor chimneys! Many years ago it was the home of fair ladies and gallant gentlemen, but its glory is long past. And yet, Lisbeth, when I think of it at such an hour as this, and with you beside me, I begin to wonder if we could not manage between us to bring back the old order of things."
Lisbeth was silent.
"It has a wonderful old-fashioned rose garden, and you are fond of roses, Lisbeth."
"Yes," she murmured; "I'm very fond of roses."
"They would be in full bloom now," I suggested.
There was another pause, during which the blackbird performed three or four difficult arias with astonishing ease and precision.
"Aunt Agatha is fond of roses, too!" said Lisbeth at last very gravely. "Poor, dear Aunt, I wonder what she would say if she could see us now?"
"Such things are better left to the imagination," I answered.
"I ought to write and tell her," murmured Lisbeth.
"But you won't do that, of course?"
"No, I won't do that if—"
"If you will give me—them."
"One," I demurred.
"On one condition then—just once, Lisbeth?"
Her lips were very near, her lashes drooped, and for one delicious moment she hesitated. Then I felt a little tug at my coat pocket and springing to her feet she was away with "them" clutched in her hand.
"Trickery!" I cried, and started in pursuit.
There is a path through the woods leading to the Shrubbery at Pane Court. Down this she fled, and her laughter came to me on the wind. I was close upon her when she reached the gate, and darting through, turned, flushed but triumphant.
"I've won!" she mocked, nodding her head at me.
"Who can cope with the duplicity of a woman?" I retorted! "But, Lisbeth, you will give me one—just one?"
"It would spoil the pair."
"Oh, very well," I sighed, "good night, Lisbeth," and lifting my cap I turned away.
There came a ripple of laughter be hind me, something struck me softly upon the cheek, and stooping, I picked up that which lay half unrolled at my feet, but when I looked round Lisbeth was gone.
So presently I thrust "them" into my pocket and walked back slowly along the river path toward the hospitable shelter of the Three Jolly Anglers.
THE SHERIFF OF NOTTINGHAM
To sit beside a river on a golden afternoon listening to its whispered melody, while the air about one is fragrant with summer, and heavy with the drone of unseen wings!—What ordinary mortal could wish for more? And yet, though conscious of this fair world about me, I was still uncontent, for my world was incomplete—nay, lacked its most essential charm, and I sat with my ears on the stretch, waiting for Lisbeth's chance footstep on the path and the soft whisper of her skirts.
The French are indeed a great people, for among many other things they alone have caught that magic sound a woman's garments make as she walks, and given it to the world in the one word "frou-frou."
O wondrous word! O word sublime! How full art thou of delicate suggestion! Truly, there can be no sweeter sound to ears masculine upon a golden summer afternoon—or any other time, for that matter—than the soft "frou-frou" that tells him SHE is coming.
At this point my thoughts were interrupted by something which hurtled through the air and splashed into the water at my feet. Glancing at this object, I recognised the loud-toned cricket cap affected by the Imp, and reaching for it, I fished it out on the end of my rod. It was a hideous thing of red, white, blue, and green—a really horrible affair, and therefore much prized by its owner, as I knew.
Behind me the bank rose some four or five feet, crowned with willows and underbrush, from the other side of which there now came a prodigious rustling and panting. Rising to my feet therefore, I parted the leaves with extreme care, and beheld the Imp himself.
He was armed to the teeth—that is to say, a wooden sword swung at his thigh, a tin bugle depended from his belt, and he carried a bow and arrow. Opposite him was another boy, particularly ragged at knee and elbow, who stood with hands thrust into his pockets and grinned.
"Base caitiff, hold!" cried the Imp, fitting an arrow to the string: "stand an' deliver! Give me my cap, thou varlet, thou!" The boy's grin expanded.
"Give me my cap, base slave, or I'll shoot you—by my troth!" As he spoke the Imp aimed his arrow, whereupon the boy ducked promptly.
"I ain't got yer cap," he grinned from the shelter of his arm. "It's been an' gone an' throwed itself into the river!" The Imp let fly his arrow, which was answered by a yell from the Base Varlet.
"Yah!" he cried derisively as the Imp drew his sword with a melodramatic flourish. "Yah! put down that stick an' I'll fight yer."
The Imp indignantly repudiated his trusty weapon being called "a stick"—"an' I don't think," he went on, "that Robin Hood ever fought without his sword. Let's see what the book says," and he drew a very crumpled papercovered volume from his pocket, which he consulted with knitted brows, while the Base Varlet watched him, open-mouthed.
"Oh, yes," nodded the Imp; "it's all right. Listen to this!" and he read as follows in a stern, deep voice:
"'Then Robin tossed aside his trusty blade, an' laying bare his knotted arm, approached the dastardly ruffian with many a merry quip and jest, prepared for the fierce death-grip.'"
Hereupon the Imp laid aside his book and weapons and proceeded to roll up his sleeve, having done which to his satisfaction, he faced round upon the Base Varlet.
"Have at ye, dastardly ruffian!" he cried, and therewith ensued a battle, fierce and fell.
If his antagonist had it in height, the Imp made up for it in weight—he is a particularly solid Imp—and thus the struggle lasted for some five minutes without any appreciable advantage to either, when, in eluding one of the enemy's desperate rushes, the Imp stumbled, lost his balance, and next moment I had caught him in my arms. For a space "the enemy" remained panting on the bank above, and then with another yell turned and darted off among the bushes.
"Hallo, Imp!" I said.
"Hallo, Uncle Dick!" he returned.
"Hurt?" I inquired.
"Wounded a bit in the nose, you know," he answered, mopping that organ with his handkerchief; "but did you see me punch 'yon varlet' in the eye?"
"Did you, Imp?"
"I think so, Uncle Dick; only I do wish I'd made him surrender. The book says that Robin Hood always made his enemies 'surrender an' beg their life on trembling knee!' Oh, it must be fine to see your enemies on their knee!"
"Especially if they tremble," I added.
"Do you s'pose that boy—I mean 'yon base varlet' would have surrendered?"
"Not a doubt of it—if he hadn't happened to push you over the bank first."
"Oh!" murmured the Imp rather dubiously.
"By the way," I said as I filled my pipe, "where is your Auntie Lisbeth?"
"Well, I chased her up the big apple-tree with my bow an' arrow."
"Of course," I nodded. "Very right and proper!"
"You see," he explained, "I wanted her to be a wild elephant an' she wouldn't."
"Extremely disobliging of her!"
"Yes, wasn't it? So when she was right up I took away the ladder an' hid it."
"Highly strategic, my Imp."
"So then I turned into Robin Hood. I hung my cap on a bush to shoot at, you know, an' 'the Base Varlet' came up an' ran off with it."
"And there it is," I said, pointing to where it lay. The Imp received it with profuse thanks, and having wrung out the water, clapped it upon his curls and sat down beside me.
"I found another man who wants to be me uncle," he began.
"Yes; but I don't want any more, you know."
"Of course not. One like me suffices for your every-day needs—eh, my Imp?"
The Imp nodded. "It was yesterday," he continued. "He came to see Auntie Lisbeth, an' I found them in the summer-house in the orchard. An' I heard him say, 'Miss Elizbeth, you're prettier than ever!"
"Did he though, confound him!"
"Yes, an then Auntie Lisbeth looked silly, an' then he saw me behind a tree an' he looked silly, too, Then he said, 'Come here, little man!' An' I went, you know, though I do hate to be called 'little man.' Then he said he'd give me a shilling if I'd call him Uncle Frank."
"And what did you answer?"
"'Fraid I'm awfull' wicked," sighed the Imp, shaking his head, "'cause I told him a great big lie."
"Did you, Imp?"
"Yes. I said I didn't want his shilling, an' I do, you know, most awfully, to buy a spring pistol with."
"Oh, well, we'll see what can be done about the spring pistol," I answered. "And so you don't like him, eh?"
"Should think not," returned the Imp promptly. "He's always so—so awfull' clean, an' wears a little moustache with teeny sharp points on it.
"Any one who does that deserves all he gets," I said, shaking my head. "And what is his name?"
"The Honourable Frank Selwyn, an' he lives at Selwyn Park—the next house to ours."
"Oho!" I exclaimed, and whistled.
"Uncle Dick" said the Imp, breaking in upon a somewhat unpleasant train of thought conjured up by this intelligence, "will you come an' be 'Little-John under the merry greenwood tree? Do?"
"Why what do you know about 'the merry greenwood,' Imp?"
"Oh lots!" he answered, hastily pulling out the tattered book. "This is all about Robin Hood an' Little-John. Ben, the gardener's boy, lent it to me. Robin Hood was a fine chap an' so was Little-John an' they used to set ambushes an' capture the Sheriff of Nottingham an' all sorts of caddish barons, an' tie them to trees.
"My Imp," I said, shaking my head, "the times are sadly changed. One cannot tie barons—caddish or otherwise—to trees in these degenerate days."
"No, I s'pose not," sighed the Imp dolefully; "but I do wish you would be Little-John, Uncle Dick."
"Oh, certainly, Imp, if it will make you any happier; though of a truth, bold Robin," I continued after the manner of the story books, "Little-John hath a mind to bide awhile and commune with himself here; yet give but one blast upon thy bugle horn and thou shalt find my arm and quarter-staff ready and willing enough, I'll warrant you!"
"That sounds awfull' fine, Uncle Dick, only—you haven't got a quarter-staff, you know."
"Yea, 'tis here!" I answered, and detached the lower joint of my fishing rod. The Imp rose, and folding his arms, surveyed me as Robin Hood himself might have done—that is to say, with an 'eye of fire.'
"So be it, my faithful Little-John," quoth he; "meet me at the Blasted Oak at midnight. An' if I shout for help—I mean blow my bugle—you'll come an' rescue me, won't you, Uncle Dick?"
"Ay; trust me for that," I answered, all unsuspecting.
"'Tis well!" nodded the Imp; and with a wave of his hand he turned and scrambling up the bank disappeared. Of the existence of Mr. Selwyn I was already aware, having been notified in this particular by the Duchess, as I have told in the foregoing narrative. Now, a rival in air—in the abstract, so to speak—is one thing, but a rival who was on a sufficiently intimate footing to deal in personal compliments, and above all, one who was already approved of and encouraged by the powers that be, in the person of Lady Warburton—Lisbeth's formidable aunt—was another consideration altogether.
"Miss Elizabeth, you're prettier than ever!"
Somehow the expression rankled. What right had he to tell her such things?—and in a summer-house, too;—the insufferable audacity of the fellow!
A pipe being indispensable to the occasion, I took out my matchbox, only to find that it contained but a solitary vesta.
The afternoon had been hot and still hitherto, with never so much as a breath of wind stirring; but no sooner did I prepare to strike that match than from somewhere—Heaven knows where—there came a sudden flaw of wind that ruffled the glassy waters of the river and set every leaf whispering. Waiting until what I took to be a favourable opportunity, with infinite precaution I struck a light. It flickered in a sickly fashion for a moment between my sheltering palms, and immediately expired.
This is but one example of that "Spirit of the Perverse" pervading all things mundane, which we poor mortals are called upon to bear as best we may. Therefore I tossed aside the charred match, and having searched fruitlessly through my pockets for another, waited philosophically for some "good Samaritan" to come along. The bank I have mentioned sloped away gently on my left, thus affording an uninterrupted view of the path.
Now as my eyes followed this winding path I beheld an individual some distance away who crawled upon his hands and knees, evidently searching for something. As I watched, he succeeded in raking a Panama hat from beneath a bush, and having dusted it carefully with his handkerchief, replaced it upon his head and continued his advance.
With some faint hope that there might be a loose match hiding away in some corner of my pockets, I went through them again more carefully, but alas! with no better success; whereupon I gave it up and turned to glance at the approaching figure. My astonishment may be readily imagined when I beheld him in precisely the same attitude as before—that is to say, upon his hands and knees.
I was yet puzzling over this phenomenon when he again raked out the Panama on the end of the hunting-crop he carried, dusted it as before, looking about him the while with a bewildered air, and setting it firmly upon his head, came down the path. He was a tall young fellow, scrupulously neat and well groomed from the polish of his brown riding boots to his small, sleek moustache, which was parted with elaborate care and twisted into two fine points. There was about his whole person an indefinable air of self-complacent satisfaction, but he carried his personality in his moustache, so to speak, which, though small, as I say, and precise to a hair, yet obtruded itself upon one in a vaguely unpleasant way. Noticing all this, I thought I might make a very good guess as to his identity if need were.
All at once, as I watched him—like a bird rising from her nest—the devoted Panama rose in the air, turned over once or twice and fluttered (I use the word figuratively) into a bramble bush. Bad language was writ large in every line of his body as he stood looking about him, the hunting-crop quivering in his grasp.
It was at this precise juncture that his eye encountered me, and pausing only to recover his unfortunate headgear, he strode toward where I sat, "Do you know anything about this?" he inquired in a somewhat aggressive manner, holding up a length of black thread.
"A piece of ordinary pack-thread," I answered, affecting to examine it with a critical eye.
"Do you know anything about it?" he said again, evidently in a very bad temper.
"Sir," I answered, "I do not."
"Because if I thought you did—"
"Sir." I broke in, "you'll excuse me, but that seems a very remarkable hat of yours.
"I repeat if I thought you did—"
"Of course," I went on, "each to his taste, but personally I prefer one with less 'gymnastic' and more 'stay-at-home, qualities."
The hunting-crop was raised threateningly.
"Mr. Selwyn?" I inquired in a conversational tone.
The hunting-crop hesitated and was lowered.
"Ah, I thought so," I said, bowing; "permit me to trespass upon your generosity to the extent of a match—or, say, a couple."
Mr. Selwyn remained staring down at me for a moment, and I saw the points of his moustache positively curling with indignation. Then, without deigning a reply, he turned on his heel and strode away. He had not gone more than thirty or forty paces, however, when I heard him stop and swear savagely—I did not need to look to learn the reason—I admit I chuckled. But my merriment was short-lived, for a moment later came the feeble squeak of a horn followed by a shout and the Imp's voice upraised in dire distress.
"Little-John! Little-John! to the rescue!" it called.
I hesitated, for I will freely confess that when I had made that promise to the Imp it was with small expectation that I should be called upon to fulfil it. Still, a promise is a promise: so I sighed, and picking up the joint of my fishing rod, clambered up the bank. Glancing in the direction of the cries, I beheld Robin Hood struggling in the foe's indignant grasp.
Now, there were but two methods of procedure open to me as I could see—the serious or the frankly grotesque. Naturally I chose the latter, and quarter-staff on shoulder, I swaggered down the path with an air that Little-John himself might well have envied.
"Beshrew me!" I cried, confronting the amazed Mr. Selwyn, "who dares lay hands on bold Robin Hood?—away, base rogue, hie thee hence or I am like to fetch thee a dour ding on that pate o' thine!"
Mr. Selwyn loosed the Imp and stared at me in speechless astonishment, as well he might.
"Look ye, master," I continued, entering into the spirit of the thing, "no man lays hand on Robin Hood whiles Little-John can twirl a staff or draw a bow-string—no, by St. Cuthbert!"
The Imp, retired to a safe distance, stood hearkening in a transport till, bethinking him of his part, he fished out the tattered book and began surreptitiously turning over the pages; as for Mr. Selwyn, he only fumbled at his moustache and stared.
"Aye, but I know thee," I went on again, "by thy sly and crafty look, by thy scallopped cape and chain of office, I know thee for that same Sheriff of Nottingham that hath sworn to our undoing. Go to! didst' think to take Robin—in the greenwood? Out upon thee! Thy years should have taught thee better wisdom. Out upon thee!"
"Now will I feed"—began the Imp, with the book carefully held behind him, "now will I feed fat mine vengeance—to thy knees for a scurvy rascal!"
"Aye, by St. Benedict!" I nodded, "twere well he should do penance on his marrow-bones from hither to Nottingham Town; but as thou art strong—be merciful, Robin."
Mr. Selwyn still curled the point of his moustache.
"Are you mad," he inquired, "or only drunk?"
"As to that, good master Sheriff, it doth concern thee nothing—but mark you! 'tis an ill thing to venture within the greenwood whiles Robin Hood and Little-John he abroad."
Mr. Selwyn shrugged his shoulders and turned to the Imp.
"I am on my way to see your Aunt Elizabeth, and shall make it my particular care to inform her of your conduct, and to see that you are properly punished. As for you, sir," he continued, addressing me, "I shall inform the police that there is a madman at large."
At this double-barrelled threat the Imp was plainly much dismayed, and coming up beside me, slipped his hand into mine, and I promptly pocketed it.
"Sweet master Sheriff," I said, sweeping off my cap in true outlaw fashion, "the way is long and something lonely; methinks—we will therefore e'en accompany you, and may perchance lighten the tedium with quip and quirk and a merry stave or so."
Seeing the angry rejoinder upon Mr. Selwyn's lips, I burst forth incontinent into the following ditty, the words extemporised to the tune of "Bonnie Dundee":
There lived a sheriff in Nottinghamshire, With a hey derry down and a down; He was fond of good beef, but was fonder of beer, With a hey derry down and a down
By the time we reached the Shrubbery gate the imp was in an ecstasy and Mr. Selwyn once more reduced to speechless indignation and astonishment. Here our ways diverged, Mr. Selwyn turning toward the house, while the Imp and I made our way to the orchard at the rear.
"Uncle Dick," he said, halting suddenly, "do you think he will tell—really?"
"My dear Imp," I answered, "a man who wears points on his moustache is capable of anything."
"Then I shall be sent to bed for it, I know I shall!"
"To run into a thread tied across the path must have been very annoying," I said, shaking my head thoughtfully, "especially with a brand-new hat!"
"They were only 'ambushes,' you know, Uncle Dick."
"To be sure," I nodded. "Now, observe, my Imp, here is a shilling; go and buy that spring-pistol you were speaking of, and take your time about it; I'll see what can be done in the meanwhile."
The Imp was reduced to incoherent thanks.
"That's all right." I said, "but you'd better hurry off."
He obeyed with alacrity, disappearing in the direction of the village, while I went on toward the orchard to find Lisbeth. And presently, sure enough, I did find her—that is to say, part of her, for the foliage of that particular tree happened to be very thick and I could see nothing of her but a foot.
A positively delicious foot it was, too, small and shapely, that swung audaciously to and fro; a foot in a ridiculously out-of-place little patent-leather shoe, with a sheen of slender silken ankle above.
I approached softly, with the soul of me in my eyes, so to speak, yet, despite my caution, she seemed to become aware of my presence in some way—the foot faltered in its swing and vanished as the leaves were parted and Lisbeth looked down at me.
"Oh, it's you?" she said, and I fancied she seemed quite pleased. "You'll find a step-ladder somewhere about—it can't be very far."
"Thanks," I answered, "but I don't want one."
"No; but I do; I want to get down. That little wretched Imp hid the ladder, and I've been here all the afternoon," she wailed.
"But then you refused to be an elephant, you know," I reminded her.
"He shall go to bed for it—directly after tea!" she said.
"Lisbeth," I returned, "I firmly believe your nature to be altogether too sweet and forgiving—"
"I want to come down!"
"Certainly," I said; "put your left foot in my right hand, take firm hold of the branch above and let yourself sink gently into my arms."
"Oh!" she exclaimed suddenly, "here's Mr. Selwyn coming," and following her glance, I saw a distant Panama approaching.
"Lisbeth," said I, "are you anxious to see him?"
"In this ridiculous situation—of course not!"
"Very well then, hide—just sit there and leave matters to me and—"
"Hush," she whispered, and at that moment Selwyn emerged into full view. Catching sight of me he stopped in evident surprise.
"I was told I should find Miss Elizabeth here," he said stiffly.
"It would almost appear that you had been misinformed," I answered. For a moment he seemed undecided what to do. Would he go away? I wondered. Evidently not, for after glancing about him he sat himself down upon a rustic seat near-by with a certain resolute air that I did not like. I must get rid of him at all hazards.
"Sir," said I, "can I trespass on your generosity to the extent of a match or say a couple?" After a brief hesitation he drew out a very neat silver match-box, which he handed to me.
"A fine day, sir?" I said, puffing at my pipe.
Mr. Selwyn made no reply.
"I hear that the crops are looking particularly healthy this year," I went on.
Mr. Selwyn appeared to be utterly lost in the contemplation of an adjacent tree.
"To my mind an old apple tree is singularly picturesque," I began again, "nice nobbly branches, don't you know."
Mr. Selwyn began to fidget.
"And then," I pursued, "they tell me that apples are so good for the blood."
Mr. Selwyn shifted his gaze to the toe of his riding boot, and for a space there was silence, so much so, indeed, that an inquisitive rabbit crept up and sat down to watch us with much interest, until—evidently remembering some pressing engagement—he disappeared with a flash of his white tail.
"Talking of rabbits," said I, "they are quite a pest in Australia, I believe, and are exterminated by the thousand; I have often wondered if a syndicate could not be formed to acquire the skins—this idea, so far as I know, is original, but you are quite welcome to it if—"
Mr. Selwyn rose abruptly to his feet.
"I once in my boyhood possessed a rabbit—of the lop-eared variety," I continued, "which overate itself and died. I remember I attempted to skin it with dire results—"
"Sir." said Mr. Selwyn. "I beg to inform you that I am not interested in rabbits, lop-eared or otherwise, nor do I propose to become so; furthermore—"
But at this moment of my triumph, even as he turned to depart, something small and white fluttered down from the branches above, and the next moment Selwyn had stooped and picked up a lace handkerchief. Then, while he stared at it and I at him, there came a ripple of laughter and Lisbeth peered down at us through the leaves.
"My handkerchief-thank you," she said, as Selwyn stood somewhat taken aback by her sudden appearance.
"The trees hereabouts certainly bear very remarkable, not to say delightful fruit," he said.
"And as you will remember, I was always particularly fond of apple trees," I interpolated.
"Mr. Selwyn," smiled Lisbeth, "let me introduce you to Mr. Brent."
"Sir," said I, "I am delighted to make your acquaintance; have heard Her Grace of Chelsea speak of you—her friends are mine, I trust?"
Mr. Selwyn's bow was rather more than distant.
"I have already had the pleasure of meeting this—this very original gentleman before, and under rather peculiar circumstances, Miss Elizabeth," he said, and forthwith plunged into an account of the whole affair of the "ambushes," while Lisbeth, perched upon her lofty throne, surveyed us with an ever-growing astonishment.
"Whatever does it all mean?" she inquired as Mr. Selwyn made an end.
"You must know, then," I explained, leaning upon my quarter-staff, "the Imp took it into his head to become Robin Hood; I was Little-John, and Mr. Selwyn here was so very obliging as to enact the role of Sheriff of Nottingham—"
"I beg your pardon," exclaimed Mr. Selwyn indignantly, turning upon me with a fiery eye.
"Every one recollects the immortal exploits of Robin and his 'merrie men,'" I continued, "and you will, of course, remember that they had a habit of capturing the sheriff and tying him up to trees and things. Naturally the Imp did not proceed to that extreme. He contented himself with merely capturing the Sheriff's hat—I think that you will agree that those 'ambushes' worked line a charm, Mr. Selwyn?"
"Miss Elizabeth," he said, disdaining any reply, "I am aware of the af—affection you lavish upon your nephew; I hope that you will take measures to restrain him from such pranks—such very disgraceful pranks—in the future. I myself should suggest a change of companionship [here he glanced at me] as the most salutary method. Good-afternoon, Miss Elizabeth." So saying, Mr. Selwyn raised his hat, bowed stiffly to me, and turning upon an indignant heel, strode haughtily away.
"Well!" exclaimed Lisbeth, with a look of very real concern.
"Very well, indeed!" I nodded; "we are alone at last."
"Oh, Dick! but to have offended him like this!"
"A highly estimable young gentleman," I said, "though deplorably lacking in that saving sense of humour which—"
"Aunt Agatha seems to think a great deal of him."
"So I understand," I nodded.
"Only this morning I received a letter from her, in which, among other things, she pointed out what a very excellent match h would be."
"And what do you think?"
"Oh, I agree with her, of course; his family dates back ages and ages before the Conqueror, and he has two or three estates besides Selwyn Park, and one in Scotland."
"Do you know, Lisbeth, that reminds me of another house—not at all big or splendid, but of great age; a house which stands not far from the village of Down, in Kent; a house which is going to rack and ruin for want of a mistress. Sometimes, just as evening comes on, I think it must dream of the light feet and gentle hands it has known so many years ago, and feels its loneliness more than ever."
"Poor old house!" said Lisbeth softly.
"Yes, a house is very human, Lisbeth, especially an old one, and feels the need of that loving care which only a woman can bestow, just as we do ourselves."
"Dear old house!" said Lisbeth, more softly than before.
"How much longer must it wait—when will you come and care for it, Lisbeth?"
She started, and I thought her cheeks seemed a trifle pinker than usual as her eyes met mine.
"Dick," she said wistfully, "I do wish you would get the ladder; it's horribly uncomfortable to sit in a tree for hours and—"
"First of all, Lisbeth, you will forgive the Imp—full and freely, won't you?"
"He shall go to bed without any tea whatever."
"That will be rank cruelty, Lisbeth; remember he is a growing boy."
"And I have been perched up here—between heaven and earth—all the afternoon."
"Then why not come down?" I inquired.
"If you will only get the ladder—"
"If you will just put your right foot in my—"
"I won't!" said Lisbeth.
"As you please," I nodded, and sitting down, mechanically took out my pipe and began to fill it, while she opened her book, frowning. And after she had read very studiously for perhaps two minutes, she drew out and consulted her watch. I did the same.
"A quarter to five!" I said.
Lisbeth glanced down at me with the air of one who is deliberating upon two courses of action, and when at length she spoke, every trace of irritation had vanished completely.
"Dick, I'm awfully hungry."
"So am I," I nodded.
"It would be nice to have tea here under the trees, wouldn't it?"
"It would be positively idyllic!" I said.
"Then if you will please find that ladder—"
"If you will promise to forgive the Imp—"
"Certainly not!" she retorted.
"So be it!" I sighed, and sat down again. As I did so she launched her book at me.
"Beast!" she exclaimed.
"Which means that you are ready to descend?" I inquired, rising and depositing the maltreated volume side by side with my pipe on a rustic table near-by; "very good. Place your right foot in—"
"Oh, all right," she said quite pettishly, and next moment I had her in my arms.
"Dick! put me down-at once!"
"One moment, Lisbeth; that boy is a growing boy—"
"And shall go to bed without any tea!" she broke in.
"Very well, then," I said, and reading the purpose in my eyes, she attempted, quite vainly, to turn her head aside.
"You will find it quite useless to struggle, Lisbeth," I warned. "Your only course is to remember that he is a growing boy."
"And you are a brute!" she cried.
"Undoubtedly," I answered, bending my head nearer her petulant lips.
"But think of the Imp in bed, lying there, sleepless, tealess, and growing all the while as fast as he can."
Lisbeth surrendered, of course, but my triumph was greatly tempered with disappointment.
"You will then forgive him for the 'ambushes' and cherish him with much tea?" I stipulated, winking away a tress of hair that tickled most provokingly.
"Yes," said Lisbeth.
"And no bed until the usual hour?"
"No," she answered, quite subdued; "and now please do put me down." So I sighed and perforce obeyed.
She stood for a moment patting her rebellious hair into order with deft, white fingers, looking up at me meanwhile with a laugh in her eyes that seemed almost a challenge. I took a hasty step toward her, but as I did so the Imp hove into view, and the opportunity was lost.
"Hallo, Auntie Lisbeth!" he exclaimed, eyeing her wonderingly; then his glance wandered round as if in quest of something.
"How did she do it, Uncle Dick?" he inquired.
"Do what, my Imp?"
"Why, get out of the tree?" I smiled and looked at Lisbeth.
"Did she climb down?"
"No," said I, shaking my head.
"Did she—jump down?"
"No, she didn't jump down, my Imp."
"Well, did she—did she fly down?"
"No, nor fly down—she just came down."
"Yes, but how did she—"
"Reginald," said Lisbeth, "run and tell the maids to bring tea out here—for three."
"Three?" echoed the Imp. "But Dorothy has gone out to tea, you know—is Uncle Dick going to—"
"To be sure, Imp," I nodded.
"Oh, that is fine—hurrah, Little-John!" he cried, and darted off to ward the house.
"And you, Lisbeth?" I said, imprisoning her hands, "are you glad also?"
Lisbeth did not speak, yet I was satisfied nevertheless.
Fane Court stands bowered in trees, with a wide stretch of the greenest of green lawns sloping down to the river stairs.
They are quaint old stairs, with a marble rail and carved balusters, worn and crumbling, yet whose decay is half hid by the kindly green of lichens and mosses; stairs indeed for an idle fellow to dream over on a hot summer's afternoon—and they were, moreover, a favourite haunt of Lisbeth. It was here that I had moored my boat, therefore and now lay back, pipe in mouth and with a cushion beneath my head, in that blissful state between Sleeping and waking.
Now, as I lay, from the blue wreaths of my pipe I wove me fair fancies:
And lo! the stairs were no longer deserted; there were fine gentlemen, patched and powdered, in silks and satins, with shoe-buckles that flashed in the sun; there were dainty ladies in quilted petticoats and flowered gowns, with most wonderful coiffures; and there was Lisbeth, fairer and daintier than them all, and there, too, was I. And behold how demurely she courtesied and smiled behind her ivory fan! With what a grace I took a pinch of snuff! With what an air I ogled and bowed with hand on heart! Then, somehow, it seemed we were alone, she on the top stair, I on the lower. And standing thus I raised my arms to her with an appealing gesture. Her eyes looked down into mine, the patch quivered at the corner of her scarlet mouth, and there beside it was the dimple. Beneath her petticoat I saw her foot in a little pink satin shoe come slowly toward me and stop again. I watched scarce breathing, for it seemed my fate hung in the balance. Would she come down to Love and me, or—
"Ship ahoy!" cried a voice, and in that moment my dream vanished. I sighed, and looking round, beheld a head peering eat me over the balustrade; a head bound up in a bandanna handkerchief of large pattern and vivid colouring.
"Why, Imp!" I exclaimed. But my surprise abated when he emerged into full view.
About his waist was a broadbuckled belt, which supported a wooden cutlass, two or three murderous wooden daggers and a brace of toy pistols; while upon his legs were a pair of top-boots many sizes too large for him, so that walking required no little care. Yet on the whole his appearance was decidedly effective. There could be no mistake—he was a bloodthirsty pirate!
The imp is an artist to his grimy finger tips.
"Avast, shipmate!" I cried. "How's the wind?"
"Oh," he exclaimed, failing over his boots with eagerness, "do take me in your boat, an' let's be pirates, will you, Uncle Dick?"
"Well, that depends. Where is your Auntie Lisbeth?"
"Mr. Selwyn is going to row her and Dorothy up the river."
"The deuce he is!"
"Yes, an' they won't take me."
"Why not, my Imp?"
"'Cause they're 'fraid I should upset the boat. So I thought I'd come ask you to be a pirate, you know. I'll lend you my best dagger an' one of my pistols. Will you, Uncle Dick?"
"Come aboard, shipmate, if you are for Hispaniola, the Tortugas, and the Spanish Main," said I, whereupon he scrambled in, losing a boot overboard in his baste, which necessitated much intricate angling with the boat-hook ere it was recovered.
"They're Peter's, you know," he explained as he emptied out the water.
"I took them out of the harness-room; a pirate must have boots, you know, but I'm afraid Peter'll swear."
"Not a doubt of it when he sees them," I said as we pushed off.
"I wish," he began, looking round thoughtfully after a minute or so, "I wish we could get a plank or a yardarm from somewhere."
"What for, my Imp?"
"Why, don't you remember, pirates always had a plank for people to 'walk,' you know, an' used to 'swing them up to the yard-arm.'
"You seem to know all about it," I said as I pulled slowly down stream.
"Oh, yes, I read it all in Scarlet Sam, the Scourge of the South Seas. Scarlet Sam was fine. He used to stride up and down the quarterdeck an' flourish his cutlass, an' his eyes would roll, an' he'd foam at the mouth, an—"
"Knock everybody into 'the lee scuppers,'" I put in.
"Yes," cried the Imp in a tone of unfeigned surprise. "How did you know that, Uncle Dick?"
"Once upon a time," I said, as I swung lazily at the sculls, "I was a boy myself, and read a lot about a gentleman named 'Beetle-browed Ben.' I tell you. Imp, he was a terror for foaming and stamping, if you like, and used to kill three or four people every morning, just to get an appetite for breakfast." The Imp regarded me with round eyes.
"How fine!" he breathed, hugging himself in an ecstasy.
"It was," I nodded: "and then he was a very wonderful man in other ways. You see, he was always getting himself shot through the head, or run through the body, but it never hurt Beetle-browed Ben—not a bit of it."
"An' did he 'swing people at the yard-arm—with a bitter smile'?"
"Lots of 'em!" I answered.
"An' make them 'walk the plank—with a horrid laugh'?"
"By the hundred!"
"An' 'maroon them on a desolate island—with a low chuckle'?"
"Many a time," I answered; "and generally with chuckle."
"Oh. I should like to read about him!" said the Imp with a deep sigh; "will you lend me your book about him, Uncle Dick?"
I shook my head. "Unfortunately, that, together with many other valued possessions, has been ravaged from me by the ruthless maw of Time," I replied sadly.
The Imp sat plunged in deep thought, trailing his fingers pensively in the water.
"And so your Auntie Lisbeth is going for a row with Mr. Selwyn, is she?" I said.
"Yes, an' I told her she could come an' be a pirate with me if she liked—but she wouldn't."
"Strange!" I murmured.
"Uncle Dick, do you think Auntie Lisbeth is in love with Mr. Selwyn?"
"What?" I exclaimed, and stopped rowing.
"I mean, do you think Mr. Selwyn is in love with Auntie Lisbeth?"
"My Imp. I'm afraid he is. Why?"
"Cause cook says he is, an' so does Jane, an' they know all about love, you know. I've heard them read it out of a book lots an' lots of times. But I think love is awfull' silly, don't you, Uncle Dick?"
"Occasionally I greatly fear so," I sighed.
"You wouldn't go loving anybody, would you, Uncle Dick?"
"Not if I could help it," I answered, shaking my head; "but I do love some one, and that's the worst of it."
"Oh!" exclaimed the Imp, but in a tone more of sorrow than anger.
"Don't be too hard on me, Imp," I said; "your turn may come when you are older; you may love somebody one of these days."
The Imp frowned and shook his head. "No," he answered sternly; "when I grow up big I shall keep ferrets. Ben, the gardener's boy, has one with the littlest, teeniest pink nose you ever saw."
"Certainly a ferret has its advantages," I mused. "A ferret will not frown upon one one minute and flash a dimple at one the next. And then, again, a ferret cannot be reasonably supposed to possess an aunt. There is something to be said for your idea after all, Imp."
"Why, then, let's be pirates, Uncle Dick," he said with an air of finality. "I think I'll be Scarlet Sam, 'cause I know all about him, an' you can be Timothy Bone, the boatswain."
"Aye, aye, sir," I responded promptly; "only I say, Imp, don't roll your eyes so frightfully or you may roll yourself overboard."
Scorning reply, he drew his cutlass, and setting it between his teeth in most approved pirate fashion, sat, pistol in hand, frowning terrifically at creation in general.
"Starboard your helm—starboard!" he cried, removing his weapon for the purpose.
"Starboard it is!" I answered.
"Clear away for action!" growled the Imp. "Double-shot the cannonades, and bo'sun, pipe all hands to quarters."
Whereupon I executed a lively imitation of a boatswain's whistle. Most children are blessed with imagination, but the Imp in this respect is gifted beyond his years. For him there is no such thing as "pretence"; he has but to close his eyes a moment to open them upon a new and a very real world of his own—the golden world of Romance, wherein so few of us are privileged to walk in these cold days of common-sense. And yet it is a very fair world peopled with giants and fairies; where castles lift their grim, embattled towers; where magic woods and forests cast their shade, full of strange beasts; where knights ride forth with lance in rest and their armour shining in the sun. And right well we know them. There is Roland, Sir William Wallace, and Hereward the Wake; Ivanhoe, the Black Knight, and bold Robin Hood. There is Amyas Leigh, old Salvation Yeo, and that lovely rascal Long John Silver. And there, too, is King Arthur, with his Knights of the Round Table—but the throng is very great, and who could name them all?
So the Imp and I sailed away into this wonderful world of romance aboard our gallant vessel, which, like any other pirate ship that ever existed—in books or out of them—"luffed, and filling upon another tack, stood away in pursuit of the Spanish treasure galleon in the offing."
What pen could justly describe the fight which followed—how guns roared and pistols flashed, while the air was full of shouts and cries and the thundering din of battle; how Scarlet Sam foamed and stamped and flourished his cutlass; how Timothy Bone piped his whistle as a bo'sun should? We had already sunk five great galleons and were hard at work with a sixth, which was evidently in a bad way, when Scarlet Sam ceased foaming and pointed over my shoulder with his dripping blade.
"Sail ho!" he cried.
"Where away?" I called back.
"Three points on the weather bow." As he spoke came the sound of oars, and turning my head, I saw a skiff approaching, sculled by a man in irreproachable flannels and straw hat.
"Why, it's—it's him!" cried the Imp suddenly. "Heave to, there!" he bellowed in the voice of Scarlet Sam. "Heave to, or I'll sink you with a 'murderous broadside!'" Almost with the words, and before I could prevent him, he gave a sharp tug to the rudder lines; there was an angry exclamation behind me, a shock, a splintering of wood, and I found myself face to face with Mr. Selwyn, flushed and hatless.
"Damn!" said Mr. Selwyn, and proceeded to fish for his hat with the shaft of his broken oar.
The Imp sat for a moment half frightened at his handiwork, then rose to his feet, cutlass in hand, but I punted him gently back into his seat with my foot.
"Really," I began, "I'm awfully sorry, you know—er—"
"May I inquire," said Mr. Selwyn cuttingly, as he surveyed his dripping hat—"may I inquire how it all happened?"
"A most deplorable accident, I assure you. If I can tow you back I shall be delighted, and as for the damage—"
"The damage is trifling, thanks," he returned icily; "it is the delay that I find annoying."
"You have my very humblest apologies," I said meekly. "If I can be of any service—" Mr. Selwyn stopped me with a wave of his hand.
"Thank you, I think I can manage," he said; "but I should rather like to know how it happened. You are unused to rowing, I presume?"
"Sir," I answered, "it was chiefly owing to the hot-headedness of Scarlet Sam, the Scourge of the South Seas."
"I beg your pardon?" said Mr. Selwyn with raised brows.
"Sir," I went on, "at this moment you probably believe yourself to be Mr. Selwyn of Selwyn Park. Allow me to dispel that illusion; you are, on the contrary, Don Pedro Vasquez da Silva, commanding the Esmeralda galleasse, bound out of Santa Crux. In us you behold Scarlet Sam and Timothy Bone, of the good ship Black Death, with the 'skull and cross-bones' fluttering at our peak. If you don't see it, that is not our fault."
Mr. Selwyn stared at me in wide-eyed astonishment, then shrugging his shoulders, turned his back upon me and paddled away as best he might. "Well, Imp," I said, "you've done it this time!"
"'Fraid I have," he returned; "but oh! wasn't it grand—and all that about Don Pedro an' the treasure galleon! I do wish I knew as much as you do, Uncle Dick. I'd be a real pirate then."
"Heaven forfend!" I exclaimed. So I presently turned and rowed back upstream, not a little perturbed in my mind as to the outcome of the adventure.
"Not a word, mind!" I cautioned as I caught sight of a certain dainty figure watching our approach from the shade of her parasol. The Imp nodded, sighed, and sheathed his cutlass.
"Well!" said Lisbeth as we glided up to the water-stairs; "I wonder what mischief you have been after together?"
"We have been floating upon a river of dreams," I answered, rising and lifting my hat; "we have likewise discoursed of many things. In the words of the immortal Carroll:
"'Of shoes, and ships, and sealing wax, and cabbages, and—'"
"Pirates!" burst out the Imp.
"This dream river of ours," I went on, quelling him with a glance, "has carried us to you, which is very right and proper. Dream rivers always should, more especially when you sit ''Mid sunshine throned, and all alone.'"
"But I'm not all alone, Dick."
"No; I'm here," said a voice, and Dorothy appeared with her small and fluffy kitten under her arm as usual. "We are waiting for Mr. Selwyn, you know. We've waited, oh! a long, long time, but he hasn't come, and Auntie says he's a beast, and—"
"Dorothy!" exclaimed Lisbeth, frowning.
"Yes, you did, Auntie," sad Dorothy, nodding her head. "I heard you when Louise ran up a tree and I had to coax her back; and I have a clean frock on, too, and Louise will be oh so disappointed!" Here she kissed the fluffy kitten on the nose. "So he is a beast; don't you think so, Uncle Dick?"
"Such delay is highly reprehensible," I nodded.
"I'm glad you've come, Uncle Dick, and so is Auntie. She was hoping—"
"That will do, Dorothy!" Lisbeth interrupted.
"I wonder what she was hoping?" I sighed.
"If you say another word, Dorothy, I won't tell you any more about the Fairy Prince," said Lisbeth.
"Why, then," I continued, seeing the threat had the desired effect, "since Mr. Selwyn hasn't turned up, perhaps you would care to—"
"Be a pirate?" put in the Imp. "To come for a row with us?" I corrected.
"Aboard the good ship Black Death," he went on, "'with the skull an' cross-bones at our peak."
"Thanks," said Lisbeth, "but really, I don't think I should. What a horrible name!"
"What's in a name? a boat by any other—" I misquoted. "If you like, we'll call it the Joyful Hope, bound for the Land of Heart's Delight."
Lisbeth shook her head, but I fancied the dimple peeped at me for a moment.
"It would be a pity to disappoint Louise," I said, reaching up to stroke the fluffy kitten.
"Yes," cried Dorothy, "do let's go, Auntie."
"For the sake of Louise," I urged, and held out my arms to her. Lisbeth was standing on the top stair and I on the lower, in exactly the same attitudes as I had beheld in my vision. I saw her foot come slowly toward me and stop again; her red lips quivered into a smile, and lo, there was the dimple! Dorothy saw it, too—children are wonderfully quick in such matters—and next moment was ensconced in the boat, Louise in her lap, and there was nothing left for Lisbeth but to follow.
The Imp went forward to keep a "lookout," and finding a length of fishing line, announced his intention of "heaving the lead."
I have upon several occasions ridden with Lisbeth—she is a good horsewoman—frequently danced with her, but never before had I been with her in a boat. The novelty of it was therefore decidedly pleasing, the more so as she sat so close that by furtively reaching out a foot I could just touch the hem of her dress.
"Uncle Dick," said Dorothy, looking up at me with her big grey eyes, "where is the Land of Heart's Delight?"
"It lies beyond the River of Dreams," I answered.
"Is it far away?"
"I afraid it is, Dorothy."
"Oh!—and hard to get to?"
"Yes though it depends altogether upon who is at the helm."
Lisbeth very slowly began to tie a knot in the rudder-line.
"Well, Auntie's steering now. Could she get us there?"
"Yes, she could get us there, if she would."
"Oh!" cried Dorothy, "do—do steer for the Land of Heart's Delight, Auntie Lisbeth; it sounds so pretty, and I'm sure Louise would like it ever so much."
But Lisbeth only laughed, and tied another knot in the rudder-line.
"The Land of Heart's Delight!" repeated Dorothy. "It sounds rather like Auntie's tale of the Fairy Prince. His name was Trueheart."
"And what was Prince Trueheart like?" I inquired.
"Fine!" broke in the Imp. "He used to fight dragons, you know."
"And he lived in a palace of crystal," continued Dorothy, "and he was so good and kind that the birds used to make friends with him!"
"An' he wore gold armour, an' a big feather in his helmet!" supplemented the Imp.
"And of course he loved the beautiful princess," I ended.
"Yes," nodded Dorothy; "but how did you know there was a beautiful princess?"
"Uncle Dick knows everything, of course," returned the Imp sententiously.
"Do you think the beautiful princess loved the prince, Dorothy?" I asked, glancing at Lisbeth's averted face.
"Well," answered Dorothy, pursing her mouth thoughtfully, "I don't know, Uncle Dick; you see, Auntie hasn't got to that yet, but everybody loves somebody sometime, you know. Betty—she's our cook, you know—Betty says all nice tales end up in marrying and living happy ever after."
"Not a doubt of it," said I, resting on my oars. "What do you think, Lisbeth?" She leaned back and regarded me demurely beneath her long lashes for a moment.
"I think," she answered, "that it would be much nicer if you would go on rowing."
"One more question," I said. "Tell me, has this Prince Trueheart got a moustache?"
"Like Mr. Selwyn?" cried the Imp; "should think not. The prince was a fine chap, an' used to kill dragons, you know."
"Ah! I'm glad of that," I murmured, passing my fingers across my shaven upper lip; "very glad indeed." Lisbeth laughed, but I saw her colour deepen and she looked away.
"Oh, it must be lovely to kill a dragon!" sighed the Imp.
Now, as he spoke, chancing to look round, I saw in the distance a man in a boat, who rowed most lustily—and the man wore a Panama.
Hereupon, taking a fresh grip upon my long sculls, I began to row—to row, indeed, as I had not done for many a year, with a long, steady stroke that made the skiff fairly leap. Who does not know that feeling of exhilaration as the blades grip the water and the gentle lapping at the bow swells into a gurgling song?
The memorable time when I had "stroked" Cambridge to victory was nothing to this. Then it was but empty glory that hung in the balance, while now I settled my feet more firmly, and lengthening my stroke, pulled with a will. Lisbeth sat up, and I saw her fingers tighten upon the rudder-lines.
"You asked me to row, you know," I said in response to her look.
"Yo ho!" roared Scarlet Sam in the gruffest of nautical tones. "By the deep nine, an' the wind's a-lee, so heave, my mariners all—O!"
At first we began to gain considerably upon our pursuer, but presently I saw him turn his head, saw the Panama tossed aside as Mr. Selwyn settled down to real business—and the struggle began.
Very soon, probably owing to the fixedness of my gaze, or my unremitting exertion, or both, Lisbeth seemed to become aware of the situation, and turned to look over her shoulder. I set my teeth as I waited to meet her indignant look, for I had determined to continue the struggle, come what might. But when at last she did confront me her eyes were shining, her cheeks were flushed and there actually was—the dimple.
"Sit still, children," she said, and that was all; but for one moment her eyes looked into mine.
The old river has witnessed many a hard-fought race in its time, but never was there one more hotly contested than this. Never was the song of the water more pleasant to my ear, never was the spring and bend of the long sculls more grateful, as the banks swept by faster and faster. No pirate straining every inch of canvas to escape well-merited capture, no smuggler fleeing for some sheltered cove, with the revenue cutter close astern, ever experienced a keener excitement than did we.
The Imp was in a perfect ecstasy of delight; even Dorothy forgot her beloved Louise for the time, while Lisbeth leaner toward me, the tiller-lines over her shoulders, her lips parted and a light in her eyes I had never seen there before. And yet Selwyn hung fast in our rear. If he was deficient in a sense of humour, he could certainly row.
"He was an Oxford Blue," said Lisbeth, speaking almost in a whisper, "and he has an empty boat!"
I longed to kiss the point of her little tan shoe or the hem of her dress for those impulsive words, and tried to tell her so with my eyes—breath was too precious just then. Whether she understood or not I won't be sure, but I fancy she did from the way her lashes drooped.
"Oh, my eyes!" bellowed Scarlet Sam; "keep her to it, quartermaster, an' take a turn at the mizzen-shrouds!"
When I again glanced at our pursuer I saw that he was gaining. Yes, there could be no mistake; slowly but surely, try as I would, the distance between us lessened and lessened, until he was so near that I could discern the very parting of his back hair. So, perforce, bowing to the inevitable, I ceased my exertions, contenting myself with a long, easy stroke. Thus by the time he was alongside I had in some measure recovered my breath.
"Miss—Eliz—beth," he panted, very hot of face and moist of brow, "must beg—the—favour—of few words with you."
"With pleasure, Mr. Selwyn," answered Lisbeth, radiant with smiles; "as many as you wish." Forthwith Mr. Selwyn panted out his indictment against the desperadoes of the Black Death, while the Imp glanced apprehensively from him to Lisbeth and stole his hand furtively into mine.
"I should not have troubled you with this, Miss Elizabeth," Selwyn ended, "but that I would not have you think me neglectful of an appointment, especially with you."
"Indeed, Mr. Selwyn, I am very grateful to you for opening my eyes to such a—a—"
"Very deplorable accident," I put in.
"I—I was perfectly certain," she continued, without so much as glancing in my direction, "that you would never have kept me waiting without sufficient reason. And now, Mr. Brent, if you will be so obliging as to take us to the bank, Mr. Selwyn shall row us back—if he will."
"Delighted!" he murmured.
"I ordered tea served in the orchard at five o'clock," smiled Lizbeth, "and it is only jest four, so—"
"Which bank would you prefer," I inquired—"The right or the left?"
"The nearest," said Lisbeth.
"Which should you think was the nearest, Mr. Selwyn?" I queried. Disdaining any reply, Selwyn ran his skiff ashore, and I obediently followed. Without waiting for my assistance, Lisbeth deftly made the exchange from one boat to the other, followed more slowly by Dorothy.
"Come, Reginald," she said, as Selwyn made ready to push off; "we're waiting for you!" The Imp squatted closer to me.
"Reginald Augustus!" said Lisbeth. The Imp shuffled uneasily. "Are you coming?" inquired Lisbeth.
"I—I'd rather be a pirate with Uncle Dick, please, Auntie Lisbeth," he said at last.
"Very well," nodded Lisbeth with an air of finality; "then of course I must punish you." But her tone was strangely gentle, and as she turned away I'll swear I saw the ghost of that dimple—yes, I'll swear it. So we sat very lonely and dejected, the Imp and I, desperadoes though we were, as we watched Selwyn's boat grow smaller and smaller until it was lost round a bend in the river.
"'Spect I shall get sent to bed for this," said the Imp after a long pause.
"I think it more than probable, my Imp."
"But then, it was a very fine race—oh, beautiful!" he sighed; "an' I couldn't desert my ship an' Timothy Bone, an' leave you here all by your self—now could I, Uncle Dick?"
"Of course not, Imp."
"What are you thinking about, Uncle Dick?" he inquired as I stared, chin in hand, at nothing in particular.
"I was wondering, Imp, where the River of Dreams was going to lead me, after all."
"To the Land of Heart's Delight, of course," he answered promptly; "you said so, you know, an' you never tell lies, Uncle Dick—never."
The Three Jolly Anglers is an inn of a distinctly jovial aspect, with its toppling gables, its creaking sign, and its bright lattices, which, like merry little twinkling eyes, look down upon the eternal river to-day with the same half-waggish, half-kindly air as they have done for generations.
Upon its battered sign, if you look closely enough, you may still see the Three Anglers themselves, somewhat worn and dim with time and stress of weather, yet preserving their jollity through it all with an heroic fortitude—as they doubtless will do until they fade away altogether.
It is an inn with raftered ceilings, and narrow, winding passageways; an inn with long, low chambers full of unexpected nooks and corners, with great four-post beds built for tired giants it would seem, and wide, deep chimneys reminiscent of Gargantuan rounds of beef; an inn whose very walls seem to exude comfort, as it were—the solid comfortable comfort of a bygone age.
Of all the many rooms here to be found I love best that which is called the Sanded Parlour. Never were wainscoted walls of a mellower tone, never was pewter more gleaming, never were things more bright and speckless, from the worn, quaint andirons on the hearth to the brass-bound blunderbuss, with the two ancient fishing-rods above. At one end of the room was a long, low casement, and here I leaned, watching the river near-by, and listening to its never-ceasing murmur. I had dined an hour ago; the beef had been excellent—it always is at the Three Jolly Anglers—and the ale beyond all criticism; also my pipe seemed to have an added flavour.
Yet despite all this I did not enjoy that supreme content—that philosophical calm which such beef and such ale surely warranted. But then, who ever heard of Love and Philosophy going together?
Away over the uplands a round, harvest moon was beginning to rise, flecking the shadowy waters with patches of silver, and, borne to my ears upon the warm, still air, came the throb of distant violins. This served only to deepen my melancholy, reminding me that somebody or other was giving a ball to-night; and Lisbeth was there, and Mr. Selwyn was there, of course, and I—I was here—alone with the brass-bound blunderbuss, the ancient fishing-rods and the antique andirons on the hearth; with none to talk to save the moon, and the jasmine that had crept in at the open casement. And noting the splendour of the night, I experienced towards Lisbeth a feeling of pained surprise, that she should prefer the heat and garish glitter of a ball-room to walking beneath such a moon with me.
Indeed, it was a wondrous night! one of those warm still nights which seem full of vague and untold possibilities! A night with magic in the air, when elves and fairies dance within their grassy rings, or biding amid the shade of trees, peep out at one between the leaves; or again, some gallant knight on mighty steed may come pacing slowly from the forest shadows, with the moonlight bright upon his armour.
Yes, surely there was magic in the air to-right! I half wished that some enchanter might, by a stroke of his fairy wand, roll back the years and leave me in the brutal, virile, Good Old Times, when men wooed and won their loves by might and strength of arm, and not by gold, as is so often the case in these days of ours. To be mounted upon my fiery steed, lance in hand and sword on thigh, riding down the leafy alleys of the woods yonder, led by the throbbing, sighing melody. To burst upon the astonished dancers like a thunder-clap; to swing her up to my saddle-bow, and clasped in each other's arms, to plunge into the green mystery of forest.
My fancies had carried me thus far when I became aware of a small, furtive figure, dodging from one patch of shadow to another. Leaning from the window, I made out the form of a somewhat disreputable urchin, who, dropping upon hands and knees, proceeded to crawl towards me over the grass with a show of the most elaborate caution.
"Hallo!" I exclaimed, "halt and give the counter-sign!" The urchin sat up on his heels and stared at me with a pair of very round, bright eyes.
"Please, are you Mr. Uncle Dick?" he inquired.
"Oh," I said, "you come from the Imp, I presume." The boy nodded a round head, at the same time fumbling with something in his pocket.
"And whom may you be?" I inquired, conversationally.
"I'm Ben, I am."
"The gardener's boy?" Again the round head nodded acquiescence, as with much writhing and twisting he succeeded in drawing a heterogeneous collection of articles from his pocket, whence he selected a very dirty and crumpled piece of paper.
"He wants a ladder so's he can git out, but it's too big fer me to lift, so he told me to give you this here so's you would come an' rescue him—please, Mr. Uncle Dick." With which lucid explanation Ben handed me the crumpled note.
Spreading it out upon the windowsill, I managed to make out as follows:
DEAR UNKEL DICK: I'm riting this with my hart's blood bekors I'm a prisner in a gloomie dungun. It isn't really my hart's blood it's only red ink, so don't worry. Aunty lisbath cent me to bed just after tea bekors she said I'm norty, and when she'd gone Nurse locked me in so i can't get out and I'm tired of being a prisner, so please i want you to get the ladda and let me eskape, please unkel dick, will you.
yours till deth, REGINALD AUGUSTUS.
Auntie was reading Ivanhoe to us and I've been the Black Knight and you can be Gurth the swine-herd if you like.
"So that's the way of it?" I said.
"Well! well! such an appeal shall not go unanswered, at least. Wait there, my trusty Benjamin, and I'll be with you anon." Pausing only to refill my tobacco-pouch and get my cap, I sallied out into the fragrant night, and set off along the river, the faithful Benjamin trotting at my heels.
Very soon we were skirting blooming flower-beds, and crossing trim lawns, until at length we reached a certain wing of the house from a window of which a pillow-case was dangling by means of a string.
"That's for provisions!" volunteered Ben; "we pertended he was starving, so he lets it down an' I fill it with onions out of the vegetable garden." At this moment the curly head of the Imp appeared at the window, followed by the major portion of his person.
"Oh, Uncle Dick!" he cried in a loud stage-whisper, "I think you had better be the Black Knight, 'cause you're so big, you know."
"Imp," I said, "get in at once, do you want to break your neck?"
The Imp obediently wriggled into safety.
"The ladder's in the tool-house, Uncle Dick—Ben'll show you. Will you get it, please?" he pleaded in a wheedling tone.
"First of all, my Imp, why did your Auntie Lisbeth send you to bed—had you been a very naughty boy?"
"No-o!" he answered, after a moment's pause, "I don't think I was so very naughty—I only painted Dorothy like an Indian chief—green, with red spots, an' she looked fine, you know."
"Green, with red spots!" I repeated.
"Yes; only auntie didn't seem to like it."
"I fear your Auntie Lisbeth lacks an eye for colour."
"Yes, 'fraid so; she sent me to bed for it, you know."
"Still, Imp, under the circumstances I think it would be best if you got undressed and went to sleep."
"Oh, but I can't, Uncle Dick!"
"Why not, my Imp?"
"'Cause the moon's so very bright, an' everything looks so fine down there, an' I'm sure there's fairies about—Moon-fairies, you know, and I'm 'miserable."
"Yes, Auntie Lisbeth never came to kiss me good-night, an' so I can't go to sleep, Uncle Dick!"
"Why that alters the case, certainly."
"Yes, an' the ladder's in the tool-house."
"Imp," I said, as I turned to follow Benjamin, "oh, you Imp!"
There are few things in this world more difficult to manage than a common or garden ladder; among other peculiarities it has a most unpleasant knack of kicking out suddenly just as everything appears to be going smoothly, which is apt to prove disconcerting to the novice. However, after sundry mishaps of the kind, I eventually got it reared up to the window, and a moment afterwards the Imp had climbed down and stood beside me, drawing the breath of freedom.
As a precautionary measure we proceeded to hide the ladder in a clump of rhododendrons hard by, and had but just done so when Benjamin uttered a cry of warning and took to his heels, while the Imp and I sought shelter behind a friendly tree. And not a whit too soon, for, scarcely had we done so, when two figures came round a corner of the house—two figures who walked very slowly and very close together.
"Why it's Betty-the cook, you know-an' Peter!" whispered the Imp.
Almost opposite our hiding-place Betty paused to sigh heavily and stare up at the moon.
"Oh, Peter!" she murmured, "look at that there orb!"
"Ar!" said Peter, gazing obediently upward.
"Peter, ain't it 'eavenly; don't it stir your very soul?"
"Ar!" said Peter.
"Peter, are you sure you loves me more than that Susan thing at the doctor's?" A corduroy coat-sleeve crept slowly about Betty's plump waist, and there came the unmistakable sound of a kiss.
"Really and truly, Peter?"
"Ar!" said Peter, "so 'elp me Sam!" The kissing sound was repeated, and they walked on once more, only closer than ever now on account of the corduroy coat-sleeve.
"Those two are in love, you know," nodded the Imp. "Peter says the cheese-cakes she makes are enough to drive any man into marrying her, whether he wants to or not, an' I heard Betty telling Jane that she adored Peter, 'cause he had so much soul! Why is it," he inquired, thoughtfully, as he watched the two out of sight, "why is it, Uncle Dick, that people in love always look so silly?"
"Do you think so?" I asked, as I paused to light my pipe.
"'Course I do!" returned the Imp; "what's any one got to put their arm round girls for, just as if they wanted holding up—I think it's awfull' silly!"
"Of course it is, Imp—your wisdom is unassailable—still, do you know, I can understand a man being foolish enough to do it—occasionally."
"But you never would, Uncle Dick?"
"Alas, Imp!" I said, shaking my head, "Fortune seems to preclude all chances of it."
"'Course you wouldn't," he exclaimed; "an' Ivanhoe wouldn't—"
"Ah, but he did!" I put in; "have you forgotten Rowena?"
"Oh!" cried the Imp dolefully, "do you really think he ever put his arm round her?"
"Sure of it," I nodded. The Imp seemed much cast down, and even shocked.
"But there was the Black Knight," he said, brightening suddenly—"Richard of the Lion Heart, you know—he never did!"
"Not while he was fighting, of course, but afterwards, if history is to be believed, he very frequently did; and we are all alike, Imp—everybody does sooner or later."
"But why? Why should any one want to put their arm round a girl, Uncle Dick?"
"For the simple reason that the girl is there to put it round, I suppose. And now, Imp, let us talk of fish."
Instinctively we had wandered towards the river, and now we stood to watch the broad, silver path made by the moon across the mystery of its waters.
"I love to see the shine upon the river like that," said the Imp, dreamily; "Auntie Lisbeth says it's the path that the Moon-fairies come down by to bring you nice dreams when you've been good. I've got out of bed lots of times an' watched an' watched, but I've never seen them come. Do you think there are fairies in the moon, Uncle Dick?"
"Undoubtedly," I answered; "how else does it keep so bright? I used to wonder once how they managed to make it shine so."
"It must need lots of rubbing!" said the Imp; "I wonder if they ever get tired?"
"Of course they do, Imp, and disheartened, too, sometimes, like the rest of us, and then everything is black, and people wonder where the moon is. But they are very brave, these Moon-fairies, and they never quite lose hope, you know; so they presently go back to their rubbing and polishing, always starting at one edge. And in a little while we see it begin to shine again, very small and thin at first, like a—"
"Yes, just like a thumb-nail; and so they go on working and working at it until it gets as big and round and bright as it is to-night."
Thus we walked together through a fairy world, the Imp and I, while above the murmur of the waters, above the sighing of the trees, came the soft, tremulous melody of the violins.
"I do wish I had lived when there were knights like Ivanhoe," burst out the Imp suddenly; "it must have been fine to knock a man off his horse with your lance."
"Always supposing he didn't knock you off first, Imp."
"Oh! I should have been the sort of knight that nobody could knock off, you know. An' I'd have wandered about on my faithful charger, fighting all sorts of caddish barons, and caitiffs, an' slaying giants; an' I'd have rescued lovely ladies from castles grim—though I wouldn't have put my arm round them, of course!"
"Perish the thought, my Imp!"
"Uncle Dick!" he said, insinuatingly, "I do wish you'd be the Black Knight, an' let me be Ivanhoe."
"But there are no caitiffs and things left for us to fight, Imp, and no lovely ladies to rescue from castles grim, alas!"
Now we had been walking on, drawn almost imperceptibly by the magic thread of the melody, which had led us, by devious paths, to a low stone wall, beyond which we could see the gleam of lighted windows and the twinkle of fairy-lamps among the trees. And over there, amid the music and laughter, was Lisbeth in all the glory of her beauty, happy, of course, and light-hearted; and here, beneath the moon, was I.
"We could pretend this was a castle grim, you know, Uncle Dick, full of dungeons an' turrets, an' that we were going to rescue Auntie Lisbeth."
"Imp," I said, "that's really a great idea."
"I wish I'd brought my trusty sword," he sighed, searching about for something to supply its place; "I left it under my pillow, you know."
Very soon, however, he had procured two sticks, somewhat thin and wobbly, yet which, by the magic of imagination, became transformed into formidable, two-edged swords, with one of which he armed me, the other he flourished above his head.
"Forward, gallant knights!" he cried; "the breach! the breach! On! on! St. George, for Merrie England!" With the words he clambered upon the wall and disappeared upon the other side.
For a moment I hesitated, and then, inspired by the music and the thought of Lisbeth, I followed suit. It was all very mad, of course, but who cared for sanity on such a night—certainly not I.
"Careful now, Imp!" I cautioned; "if any one should see us they'll take us for thieves, or lunatics, beyond a doubt."
We found ourselves in an enclosed garden with a walk which led between rows of fruit trees. Following this, it brought us out upon a broad stretch of lawn, with here and there a great tree, and beyond, the gleaming windows of the house. Filled with the spirit of adventure, we approached, keeping in the shadow as much as possible, until we could see figures that strolled to and fro upon the terrace or promenaded the walks below.
The excitement of dodging our way among so many people was intense; time and again we were only saved from detection by more than one wandering couple, owing to the fact that all their attention was centred in themselves. For instance, we were skirmishing round a clump of laurels, to gain the shadow of the terrace, when we almost ran into the arms of a pair; but they didn't see us for the very good reason that she was staring at the moon, and he at her.
"So sweet of you, Archibald!" she was saying.
"What did she call him 'bald for, Uncle Dick?" inquired the Imp in a loud stage-whisper, as I dragged him down behind the laurels. "He's not a bit bald, you know! An' I say, Uncle Dick, did you see his arm, it was round—"
"Yes—yes!" I nodded.
"Just like Peter's, you know."
"Yes—yes, I saw."
"I wonder why she called him—"
"Hush!" I broke in, "his name is Archibald, I suppose."
"Well, I hope when I grow up nobody will ever call me—"
"Hush!" I said again, "not a word—there's your Auntie Lisbeth! She was, indeed, standing upon the terrace, within a yard of our hiding-place, and beside her was Mr. Selwyn.
"Uncle Dick," whispered the irrepressible Imp, "do you think if we watch long enough that Mr. Selwyn will put his arm round—"
"Shut up!" I whispered savagely. Lisbeth was clad in a long, trailing gown of dove-coloured silk—one of those close-fitting garments that make the uninitiated, such as myself, wonder how they are ever got on. Also, she wore a shawl, which I was sorry for, because I have always been an admirer of beautiful things, and Lisbeth's neck and shoulders are glorious. Mr. Selwyn stood beside her with a plate of ice cream in his hand, which he handed to her, and they sat down. As I watched her and noticed her weary, bored air, and how wistfully she gazed up at the silver disc of the moon, I experienced a feeling of decided satisfaction.
"Yes," said Lisbeth, toying absently with the ice cream, "he painted Dorothy's face with stripes of red and green enamel, and goodness only knows how we can ever get it all off!"